Animal Quintet: A Southern Memoir

by Colin Dayan

In this haunting, lyrical, luminous book, Colin Dayan meditates on her family history, her relationship with animals, and her upbringing in the South. Examining memories, family documents, and photographs, Animal Quintet takes a raw look at racial tensions and bourgeois respectability in a region struggling to change.  Famed Southern war horses ridden by Civil War generals, doomed Spanish fighting bulls, the misunderstood possum hunted by generations of Southerners, and the chickens slaughtered by family servants—these animals frame and inform a haunting picture of a doomed childhood in a riven society.

In these stories, Dayan asks readers to envision another political life, a reorientation of our ways of seeing and thinking, to examine our ethical and conceptual assumptions from the perspective of other creatures, to imagine an alternative way of being in the world, of thinking and loving. Animal Quintet is a coming-of-age story that depends on an unexpected attentiveness, on another kind of intelligibility beyond the world of the human.

Praise for Animal Quintet: A Southern Memoir

“Colin Dayan brings a rare combination to her work: a strong mind and an expansive heart.”
Mark Edmundson, University of Virginia. Author of Why Read? and The Death of Sigmund Freud.

“Colin Dayan’s Animal Quintet explores the complexity of race, class, gender and region with relation to animality and history. What is it that we remember of pasts that have receded? What prompts such remembrance? How is the past always made present? Perhaps through feeling, through mood, through song. Focusing on animals and the relations they share with humans, the distinctions between are interrogated and considered and wrestled with and thought about.”
Ashon T. Crawley, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and African American Studies, University of Virginia

“Colin Dayan’s lyrical prose is haunting, it oozes through the hot, humid, and putrid air of the deep South calling her back as if to ask her to finish her thought after all these years. This memoir feels like a lucid dream dipped in magic realism. The languid posture of the mother melts into the bull’s body distorted with pain, meanwhile the crickets are noisily rubbing their legs in anticipation of sex. A mesmerizing tableau.”
Bénédicte Boisseron, Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

“Colin Dayan’s stories of mournful intimacy with animals bring the entanglement of our flesh and bodies to light, a light that seeps through her sweaty, lyrical, Southern memories. Hauntingly beautiful, these musings warn us of our profound precarity.”
Lori Gruen, author of Entangled Empathy

Growing up in an atmosphere of violent sociality and unnamed desires, Dayan gravitates toward nonhuman beings—horses, chickens, possums, dogs–watching their every movement, their acts of survival, and their eventual death, often at the hands of humans.   Dayan writes, “The horses keep dying. The humans keep watching.”

In exquisite prose that recounts her mother’s passions and demise, the gatherings of humans around husbandry and slaughter, and the dense psychic weight of racial caste systems and anti-black violence, Dayan brings to the fore an enmeshment that tethers her grief and memories to animals that inhabit the South.  She writes of how memory flows through the blood and circulates in interspecies relations.  I am left with her words: “there is no story about humans that is not also a story about animals.  I love love love this text.”

—Nicole R. Fleetwood, Professor of American Studies and Art History, Rutgers University

“We are mistaken to set ourselves above animals—our pets, our domesticated resources, our wild dangers, our prey—which we only understand in terms of our ability or failure to control or possess them. Dayan’s poignant lyrical journal shows that they are conduits to our deepest memories. Seeing history through them, we may learn to yield our claims to dominion and mourn the present that our power has made.”

—Vincent Brown, author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

Through her evocative and lyrical writing Colin Dayan once again demonstrates the interconnections between the natural world and human life. She takes a familiar narrative form of an adult remembering her childhood, but weaves a brilliant southern quilt filled with cold and warm terror, spurned love, the ubiquity of cruelty and the astonishing indifference that often accompanies it. Animal Quintet reckons with the inscrutable, letting us know, too, that mysteries remain. Dayan asks us to think harder about what we do to animals. If we are as lucky as she, we can locate the vast untapped and unexpressed parts of our own humanity.

—Gayle Pemberton, Professor of English and African American Studies Emerita, Wesleyan University, Author of The Hottest Water in Chicago: Notes of a Native Daughter

About The Author

Colin (Joan) Dayan is the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Haiti, History, and the Gods, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, The Law is a White Dog, and With Dogs at the Edge of Life. Her memoirs of growing up in Georgia have been published in The Yale Review, Southwest Review, Arizona Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Boston Review. In 2012 she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.